People usually believe that all humans across history have worked, that work is a transhistoric anthropological constant. Work is the essence of being human. Everybody needs work. A quick look at the historical record shows that this is either trivial or false. Work is the invention of capitalism, which also raised working hours to a level never known before. By Daniel Plenge
In the 28th month of life someone asked “What is this, life?”. Although that someone lives in a tribe of atheists, the next day the little human wanted to know “Who is God?”. In this spirit of puzzlement, curiosity, honest concern and experimentation the What-the-Fcuk series asks classic and current questions at the intersection of the real world and public as well as academic thought.
“It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement.” (David Graeber 1961-2020)
If you are already bored by the question, let me tickle your brain.
Usually we believe, because we have been told, that work is the most mundane and “normal” activity in the world, that it has existed either since the evolution of humans or even organisms, and that it therefore, will always be there. Work is a transhistorical necessity for humanity and as a consequence, it is necessary for each of us. What is strictly necessary cannot be changed.
This historical story invites only rhetorical questions: How could humanity survive without work? How could societies survive without work? How could individuals survive without work?
In the end, we all need it. Why would we otherwise do it during the biggest chunks of our lives, for a huge part of our time awake?
Case closed. Let’s have a drink.
However, when social and cultural history meet philosophy and the history of thought all of this becomes highly doubtful, and where there is doubt, there is the potential for change, not only of thought.
Only two decades ago, there has been lots of public talk about work society (“Arbeitsgesellschaft” in German, „société fondée sur le travail”in French, “società del lavoro” in Italian) that seems to have somewhat cooled down by now.
This kind of talk already indicates that this type of society is not the only one, that it is historically special, and that there could be something else. The main problem back then was the believe that work society could run out of its essence, work, due to automation, which was suggested by comparatively huge unemployment figures everywhere.
It was probably more urgent back then because the realization was fresher than today that the short era of Fordist prosperity and a “jobs miracle” was over and never to come back. One early source of the worry that there is nothing worse within work society than the running dry of its labour reservoir was the philosopher Hannah Arendt in 1958.
From a historical standpoint it can be argued that this type of society is rather young. It either became a reality as late as after World War II, when also women entered the so-called work force, or emerged slowly within the industrial revolution, after 1750 in Britain and afterwards on the continent(s), when men and children entered it.
Everything before or not touched by “modernity” ever since was and is no work society. Whether or not work is to be found there at all, it is not central to those societies and their structures.
Even more, all former cultures are claimed to have not even known the concept of work at all, the very idea behind that word, whichever that is. If this is true, nobody would have understood us when we talk about work, and nobody would have understood our seemingly clear question. In this view, work is nothing transhistorical or anthropological, something that belongs to human nature, it belongs to capitalism.
If we allow us some naivety for a second, we can also notice that the evaluation of work has changed drastically. Whereas in former eras the utopian happy place was imagined to be found where there is no work but only play and joy, the typical contemporary of our era cannot think of anything worse than a world without work.
“Work! Work! Work!” or “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” is the open, not even hidden, program of all the political parties, past and present. The Covid-lockdowns and how the economic crisis have been dealt with have proven it again.
The ideological hegemony of the worship of work is such astounding a fact that we usually don’t notice it any more. Liberals, socialists, communists, social democrats, Nazis or fascists generally, conservatives, greens, left, right, centre, democrats and autocrats, the Pope and the churches, the academic dandy and “the common man” (or “Normalbürger”), all chant the gospel of what they call “work.”
Only some anarchists seem to disagree. A German anarchist party’s slogan was “work is shit” around the turn of the millennium.
If it comes to what political classes call “work,” nothing is too expensive to create some, not even wars and coups. The promised land is the land of full employment. State terrorism against unemployed, with the aim of “reintegrating” them as soon as possible into the “work force,” has already become normal after decades of left and right neoliberalism.
This is a second reason why our questions might sound so absurd at first. Even in our time of multiple crises, almost nobody questions the centrality of work, not even those who believe that a new promised land has to be conquered or built on the way to it. Thus, work is most probably the value placed at the very top of the value-hierarchy in “Western” societies.
Everything can be criticized in our postmodern culture, but not that work is good or more than that, sacred. Only on rare occasions work is explicitly scrutinised by intellectuals at all. Some call for its total or partial abolition, some want to rescue it, others want to liberate labour. If work would be a transhistorical necessity, all of this would be bullshit.
Although everything deemed important seems to become an object of pop culture (money, sex, fame and success, power), surprisingly there is no significant number of songs, literature or movies which either depict daily work at all or praise it as the blessing it is supposed to be. The activity of highest value is kept a secret.
Perhaps we simply don’t even understand ourselves because work is one of the most unclear ideas of all, and perhaps the only remaining taboo of modern society.
Only this way we can understand the claim that „It is easy to overlook how fundamentally our lives are shaped by work.” Otherwise it would be blatendly absurd. If globalized “Western” lives are anything, they are work.
If this has not always been so, the question becomes how the fcuk that could have happened, how could work have become the undisputed centre of individual and social life. But the primary question is another.
What the fcuk is work?
The first and straightforward answer to that question is that work is nothing, simply because it does not exist.
Case closed again. Let’s have another drink.
Not exactly. But this answer motivates to think anew about the issues. In a sense, if you move around anywhere among humans, you will never see them do work. What you can see, if you switch your brain to a childlike state, is that men and women engage in an immense variety of different activities when they interact with things or fellows.
They might cut hair, bake bread, serve a meal, have a business lunch, drive a truck, take a bus or a shit, stroll around, store stuff, go shopping, brush someone’s teeth or their own, harvest by hand or machine, repair some gadget, pass a ball, utter sounds that are supposed to teach, assign tasks, write a poem, program an “app”, tell a joke, fuck, whatever.
What shall these activities have in common?
The little thought experiment tells us that what we call “work” has its source in our brains, our culture, our social relations. Because our use of the word “work” has become utterly imperialist, so that it is thrown over anything, we can fall prey to this kind of generality.
In ordinary German, you can talk about grief work or work of mourning, educational work, relationship work, family work, care work, intellectual work, housework and homework, sex work and political work, volunteer work and forced labour, you have a work life in world of work, which is traditionally thought to be separated from family life and leisure, where you do your workout. Economics textbooks tell us that there is a sphere of production and one of consumption or reproduction. At least in ordinary language, there is hardly such a border. That such terms are rather easily translatable indicates that the phenomenon is broader.
Our concept of work has not only become so broad due to the obsessiveness of work society, but also because many layers of historical thought and talk are somewhat carried along with it across the decades, centuries and eras.
The other way around, we project our worldview onto the past, and usually every future deemed possible. According to some scholars, one case of projection is the idea that God worked when he created the world. If you think about it for a second, it begins to sound strange.
The Marxian scholar Robert Kurz, among others, noted that the concept of work is not only used in a baffling variety of ways in everyday life, it is also a philosophical, economic and sociological category. And they are all the time confused and finally mixed into an ideological brew. Kurz wrote:
“No word is at first glance as clear, and none is as unclear on the second than this.” (translated from German)
Which are those layers?
One of those layers is the following.
- Layer 1: Work is called any human activity that directly contributes to the extraction of natural resources as the means human communities need to reproduce themselves, that is, stuff that is necessary for survival.
As long as humans exist, most probably some of them will have to engage in some form of agriculture and manufacturing. Only in a strict realization of fully automated luxury communism (see Agathonia Media here) there will be no work whatsoever in this sense. Everything will be provided by machines that also maintain themselves.
Such work is an anthropological constant. A conventional narrative runs as follows:
“As early as 2.5 million years ago, workers removed flakes from stones to make simple tools with chopping or scraping edges to open nuts and remove meat from animals. … After the most recent ice age ended ten thousand years ago, the archetypal human transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherer to a more sedentary, storing hunter-gatherer. This increased use of food storage significantly changed the nature of work by increasing the intensity of work during growing and hunting seasons and allowing for less intense work during seasons in which stored food was consumed. The further transition to an agricultural society with cultivated plants and domesticated animals four thousand to nine thousand years ago reinforced these seasonal patterns of work …”
But rather astonishingly from a modern viewpoint, such a concept that synthesizes all productive activities has been unknown from tribal economies to the ancient “high civilisations” through to the Middle Ages, and work as such has played no role in structuring societies and their ranks.
This sounds a bit strange at first and also afterwards because we cannot think with brains raised in bygone cultures. Weren’t there slaves in ancient Egypt building the pyramids, serving philosophers in Greece and working on latifundia in Rome, unfree peasants and servants in the Middle Ages, who all worked their share for the higher ranks of society?
According to the famous anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, work is no real category in tribal economies. That general idea of productive activities as such is not known becomes somewhat plausible if we add that it was estimated that hunter-gatherers spend only 2-4 hours per day for reproductive activities (“work”) to satisfy their desires, without any exchange or trade. Therefore, they have also been called economies of abundance.
Dominique Méda assures us that the absence of a concept of work holds rather generally, and that also ancient Greeks knew metiers, activities, and tasks, but no work, and that the Romans inherited this culture.
What was important were the specific social relations and traditions all such activities were embedded in, and the specific needs they created, not some general capacity of labour force or productive action. There was simply no need for a word that colligates this heterogeneity of human activities. Furthermore, nobody would have equally called the activities of a slave, an artisan, a mother and those of a philosopher-politician “work.”
If anything resembles what we call “work,” these were the activities of slaves. Since early modern times, cultures only adopted a concept of work after colonializations, which were accompanied by the imposition of monetary taxes that could only be paid by taking up work, aka wage labour, or producing for market exchanges.
When contemporary philosophers claim that what they call “work” would be a “deeply human matter” (“zutiefst menschliche Angelegenheit”), such historical differences are eliminated. It is then not only claimed that humans have always worked, but that it is cooperation and division of labour that is specific about work, whatever the social functions of those activities have been.
Whether two people have hunted deer 20 000 years ago to consume it themselves, or whether they are employed to produce hand granates for a market, it does not make a difference, because, by definition, work is next to any form of human cooperation. Even bees cooperate and are social beings. Probably they also work:
In Greek thought, there is also a clear order in (dis-)valuing different activities we all would call “work.” For philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, the more an activity is connected to the necessities of the reproduction of life, and thus chained to nature or to other humans, the more unfree it is. The ideal lies by far not in anything we would call “work,” but in politics and science, which are far removed from the world of survival and reproduction.
For short: work had no value, and free men did not engage in it.
Of course, this was an elitist stance by a class of slave owners. However, behind the veil of the taboo it comes close to what many think even today. The hero in pop culture may come in different clothes, but he never works. (And why the heck did almost all the powerful and wealthy in human history prefer not to work and exploit the work of others instead?)
Contrary to this layer, most of what we call work in our “service economies” or “immaterial economies” today has next to nothing to do with the human “metabolism with nature” (as Marx called this) and what is necessary for survival (or something more). It does not even have anything to do with the production of useful things.
That what is called “work” today is normally neither production nor more artistic creation was beautifully illustrated by the anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote that a cup of coffee is only produced once, but washed a thousand times. We can add here that it might also have been filled nearly a thousand times.
For example, 70% of the German economy belongs to the so-called third sector, namely services, which does either produce only media, changes in human beings, or moves stuff around. Much of manufacturing has in fact been automated away or was outsourced within globalisation. More astonishingly, if all the information sector is separated from what had traditionally been called “service,” and is summarized as a fourth sector, then we see that the amount of time society spends on classical services has remained rather constant.
David Graeber famously also argued that a huge amount of socially totally useless bullshit jobs are to be found in that fourth sector. Their instant disappearance would not make any difference to the world or it would become a better place. But we call it “work” nonetheless.
Much of humans now do has to do with sending around bits and bytes. We could as well decide not to call those activities “work” at all. In this direction, workers (“Arbeiter”) are at times still distinguished from employees (“Angestellte”), because those who run the machines or do manual work certainly have next to nothing in common with managers, media people or university professors.
By the way, the word “service” has its roots in the Latin word “servitium,” which means “slavery” or “serfdom.” “Travail”, the French word for work, comes from a Latin word for a torture device.
What the fcuk is the modern idea of work?
The modern idea of work, which also seems to be the very first, originated as late as in the 18th century. When it became more and more common for people to gain their means of subsistence on markets, and by being coerced into offering rather general skills to the emergent manufactures and factories, it is understandable that reflection started over what all the diverse activities humans engage in outside their homes have in common. Another factor certainly was the increase in production for markets more generally, and a famous religious precursor is to be found in protestantism.
Work was invented when there was a need to measure it. Its measure became time, the homogenous flow of what is itself measured by the ticking clock, no longer by the task that was to get done. Time in this sense was also a cultural invention and did not dominate social life before capitalism.
For the first time in history, people had to rent themselves to other people on a large scale. Their activities became something abstract, commodified, and quantifiable, first in thought, then more and more in reality, when all the hundreds of regulations and traditions agricultural and artisanal production were embedded in evaporated.
But to the horror of early capitalists until way into the 19th century, their would-be class-conscious workers were still used to stop their activities either as soon as the task was finished or they had earned enough to live from it for some time. This strongly indicates that they did also not have our idea of individual wealth, that is, amassing stuff. First of all because there were as few opportunities as desires.
Not surprisingly, the modern idea of societal wealth, the wealth of nations, emerged within the same period. Dominique Méda summarises the development:
The famous inventor of work was the philosopher-economist Adam Smith (1723-1790).
That work becomes something abstract and detachable from individuals is a precondition for being able to think wealth as the aggregation of the output such work produces (aka national income back then, GDP today), in full disregard of the needs of the producers.
Smith also invented the labour theory of value. Value is created by work and by nothing else (see Agathonia Media here).
- Layer 2: Work is called any human activity that contributes to the wealth of a nation. As such, it is a productive factor.
For Smith, these were only those activities that resulted in a material product. Not only opera singers and dancers, but all the services did not contribute anything. What he called “value” is somehow materialized in commodities, not in human interactions.
His successor Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1836) concluded that services are no work at all.
That work is measured by time makes it abstract, and ready to be aggregated and also compared. It thus helped Smith in proposing a solution to the puzzle of how commodities, which on first sight have hardly any properties in common, can be exchanged at equal values.
What makes them comparable is the abstract amount of work necessary in their production. The more work, the higher the value. According to Smith, commodities are originally not bought with money, but with work. But before the modern era commodity exchanges were a marginal phenomenon.
John Locke (1632-1704) had already left us the labour theory of private property, which claims that what a person processes by the work of his own hands becomes his own, his property, because first of all everybody is the owner of his own body and its labour power.
Et voilà, in combining Smith and Locke we find the idea that an individual’s work gives everybody the freedom to earn his living independent of anybody else, either by selling the products of his own hand or by selling his own hands, body and person as labour power for some span of time. This is the origin of the now universal believe that not to work is shameful because it supposedly means being dependent.
For the first time in history, work had become a source of freedom instead of being the manifestation of a person’s unfreedom. In antiquity the free and most humane were those who did not work, and in the Middle Ages someone free was someone who had no social bonds, a vagabond.
Although work had now become the source of private property and social wealth, Smith’s contemporaries still conceived of work as something rather negative, associated with effort, pain and sacrifices. Income is the compensation.
This is still a common idea today. Work then is defined by nothing more than that it is painful (and mandatory), whereas its opposite, leisure, would be pleasant (and freely chosen). Of course, the problem with this is that some people or professions judge their work to provide them with pleasure, while some of what is classified as leisure is not totally free if it involves, for example, the obligation to join others.
Anything criticisable in the “liberal” idea of work?
Before modern capitalism, people simply did not know any realm of leisure which was strictly separated from a realm of work or economic activity, because there were no economies separated from all the rest, as Karl Polanyi argued. Even in mid-nienteenth century England the words “leisure” and “free time” were not common.
In a sense, there were no economies at all. As a consequence, nobody had the idea to increase the wealth of a nation and to govern societies in such a way that as much work as possible is used as productively as possible.
This happens the moment capitalist production (for profit) and wage labour become the dominant form for society and individuals to reproduce themselves. Capitalism is the first work society. State communism the second, which shares also the idea of wealth.
For the theoretical school engaging in a “critique of value” and “critique of work” around Robert Kurz („Exit„), capitalism is that social system that tries to accumulate wealth in the form of the accumulation of (fictive) value (see Agathonia Media here). It argues that work in captialism, irrespective of the specifics of the concrete activities, is the (pseudo-)source or substance of the exchange-value of commodities, which are the specific producs of market economies. Capitalist production is an end in itself, as is work and the usage of human energy or labour time.
Put in more straightforward terms: the aim of production is not useful stuff, but money.
If one compares this with ancient thought, where doing science, politics or play were aims in themselves, it is a perversion.
Whereas in normal thinking nothing problematic would be seen herein, the idea is that this shows the total irrationality of capitalism and the unfreedom of all the producers. It only becomes more absurd when democracies are installed and the sovereign, the people, govern themselves to extract as much (pseudo-)value out of as much human work as is possible. For short, where the central societal aims are endless economic growth and full-employment. As the economist Kate Raworth writes as regards growth, the plane never lands.
The Manifesto Against Labour claims that work “is the activity of those who have lost their freedom.“ Why? Because nobody can decide whether he wants to sell his labour or not, whether he wants to make a profit or not, and nobody decides collectively about the purpose of all those activities.
In this view, people don’t notice their serfdom in work because they adopt the categories of liberalism in their own minds, and they don’t face a traditional master with personal powers over them, but structural constraints. They freely sign contracts because they have to.
- Layer 3: “Work” is called any human activity done for the reason of getting paid (as a compensation for the displeasure suffered or simply the time spent). In today’s terms: any activity performed under the auspices of a labour contract or a service contract.
As is often repeated, this includes more than one revolutionary change of ideas. An ancient person would have understood that he could buy products of artisans or the artisan, but (s)he would not have believed that it is possible to buy someone’s labour power or labour time. John W. Budd writes: „Medieval artisans sold or exchanged products, not labor time.”
Historically the first wage labourers were slaves who were rented out to yield some profits for their master. The second were mercenaries.
This is the type of work that one does not only do. It is the type of work that one has.
The work people have does not necessarily need to have any of the other characteristics that are often associated with work, e.g. that it produces something useful, that it is serviceable to someone or an expression of the worker’s individuality. André Gorz wrote rather correctly:
Before the social relation of wage labour became dominant, the function of work was primarily to produce basic foodstuff. Now the role of basic foodstuffs was taken over by money, which played only a marginal role before. It is rather trivial to note that within market economies you work to earn a monetary living. And as before, you have hardly any choice about the type of social relation you can enter into if you don’t inherit wealth. Again Gorz:
“’Whatever work it is, the main thing is that you have one. What counts is not what you do, but that you work, this is the main ideological message of wage society’. Don’t bother yourself about what you do, the main point is that you get a pay envelop at the end of the month.” (translated from German)
As citizens of modern society people may have a passport and its possession grants them some (political) rights. But, in the end, if they are, people are a part of society via the work that they have. In a sense, being a part of modern society for the vast majority reduces to contributing to GDP.
This is the critical view. According to it, social arrangements coerce and blackmail people to take an instrumental stance towards so-called work, because employment is what counts in the end. Everything else leads to social marginalization and material exclusion. As David Graeber wrote: the worst that can happen to prisoners is when they are denied the opportunity to do something and meet at least someone in the course of doing that.
Graeber summarized what he took to be the result of research about work in two points. 1. People hate their jobs. 2. People believe that work and earning their livelihoods is the foundation of their dignity. He called this a paradox.
Work and its sociality: it brings us all together
The more positive view states rather the exact opposite or paints the same in brighter colours. According to the philosopher Lisa Herzog and a study she quotes, supermarket cashiers would not merely have an instrumental relation to their job. Those asked said they would also do it if they would not need the paycheck. They said they wanted to “integrate socially”, “gain some autonomy”, and “be useful.”
Whereas scholars like Graeber emphasize that the wage labour relation is primarily coercive, scholars like Herzog emphasize the capacity of work itself to bring people together. Furthermore, Herzog questions Marx’ thesis that the realm of freedom is only to be found where everybody can engage in – and first of all: freely choose – a variety of activities over the course of day (and a life). This is what Gorz and Graeber certainly believe. Wage labour reduces human possibilities.
What can we make out of the two claims? I would say that the critical view has the basic truth about work society on its side and to deny it is pure ideology. The claim that work would somehow by nature be social, bring people together, is rather arbitrary as a description of what is special about work. Most human activities are not done alone, but that sociality is something special or essential about them is a totally different matter.
But therefore, it is not false. It contains the psychological truth about the reality of “work.” In analogy, children hate school and bore themselves to death in industrial education, but they would be alone at home if they weren’t imprisoned there, so they make the best out of it. Being around people with the same fate can be fun or even consoling in the 5-minute breaks.
That the social aspect is psychologically vital is also confirmed in some polls. When people are asked about their work, they tend to say that it is the more obligatory and not fulfilling the less it has a social purpose and the less they come in contact with clients or other persons. Accordingly, at least quite often one central thing people value about their “work” is its sociality. It is no secret that many people on the job enjoy “working” together with others, and to what degree that is true and essential certainly depends on the type of job, the social group, and the opportunities it offers for cooperation.
But from the critical perspective, this leaves much open, for instance that most corporations are structured in hierarchies similar to the armed forces. They are autocratic regimes. Here Graeber and Herzog agree. Furthermore, the outside observer may ask: what is done?
The tough problem for anyone at this point is to separate individual (subjective) perspectives and more global and critical views of social structures first and then to relate them again – and to differentiate as much as is possible.
Herzog furthermore claims that the economic and purely instrumental picture drawn of work would be false or one-sided. If people would live at the subsistence level, it would be plausible to believe that they primarily work to survive.
“But in Western countries we can allow ourselves the luxury to focus on more than income.” (translated from German)
In Germany, one of the richest countries in the world, 30% in the east and 20 % in the west work in the low wage sector. If we talk about “us” via “we,” we should be explicit about the social groups we include ourselves in.
It seems to be rather common that work is normally the most loudly praised by academics and politicians, that is, people who never have worked in their entire lives, but live lives closer to ancient ideals where “work” was believed to be degrading.
Romantic work: self-fulfilment
At the time when the “dark satanic mills” of industrialisation (factories) spread and people had to work under the most horrific conditions, academics imagined that work would essentially be the exact opposite of unfreedom, exploitation and dehumanisation.
The basic idea is still with us, perhaps more than ever.
Work changed from being an abstract and rather anonymous productive factor or anti-human toil to a creative vehicle of the individual’s almost artistic relation with nature and fellow humans. The product of work became an oeuvre, not something one does not care about. Work was no longer believed to be a means to an end other than itself, but the best in itself. To work became part of human nature, an expression of the essence of man.
- Layer 4: Work is every human activity that allows the person doing it to externalize his individuality in transforming a piece of the world, thereby also forming her identity and expressing her uniqueness to fellow humans, and to spend a fulfilling time.
This is the essence of work, even if the historical reality of work is the opposite and people are just the cogs and wheels in some social machine producing profit which is for the most part consumed by others. In the 19th century perspective, utopia is the liberalisation of this essence of work from its alienated state.
After the end of the Fordist era in the 70s and the growing relevance of the third sector, especially in the “New Economy” at the turn of the millennium, this view become more common. It was believed that it would not matter if the sectors of material production would shrink and that the workforce would simply switch to creative and self-organized jobs, which would allow for more freedom than the notorious production line. Structural change would simply be a good thing. Managing concepts also taught that more responsibility and self-organisation on the part of workers, who were believed to be in need of ruthless control before, would increase productivity.
Dominique Méda remarked the obvious: this is primarily a view that fits intellectuals, journalists, professors, engineers and the like. She asked for example: What about (in the mid-90s) 4.6 million “unskilled” workers in France and further millions with jobs which are neither intellectual nor self-organized: “Can we really uphold that the majority of jobs are fulfilling? Isn’t this, to the contrary, the case in a very small minority?”
In part 2 we will have a closer look at statistics and polls. But after the publication of David Graeber’s article On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs the result of two polls were that 37% of the British and 40% of the Dutch working population believed that they would not “make a meaningful contribution to the world,” further 13 % of Britons were not sure. 33% in the UK explicitly stated their work would not be fulfilling.
A German article recently referred to a poll and presented a different result, or the result differently. According to it, 65 % of those employed in Germany believe to make an important contribution to society. “Only 9% see no social value in their activity.“
The problem with polls is that everything depends first of all on the formulation and the framing of the questions. Anyway, also in the German case there are still 35% who don’t believe to make an important contribution. Believing to make a minimal contribution is not a high hurdle. In the end the results may be more similar than different. The question is what to emphasize, which depends on many further philosophical assumptions and political ideas.
A nuanced picture about different cultures would be interesting and necessary. As Rutger Bregman writes, when women were asked to quantify their “perfect day”, they assigned 106 minutes to “intimate relationships”, 36 to “work” (probably employed work), and 33 to “commuting.” I don’t know what you think, but to me this sounds like a satire on work society and people’s relation to it.
Another problem with polls is that they usually don’t allow people to imagine radically different societies, for instance where work plus buying and selling is not the dominant type of social relation outside the home. The last poll did apparently give those interviewed this freedom and the “perfect day” turns out to be the direct opposite of a working day.
D. Méda reported back in the 90s that especially those groups of people claimed that work would be important for their happiness who had tough, badly paid jobs with a high risk of becoming unemployed. This resembles what Graeber calls shit-jobs. According to A. Gorz, one third of “qualified or highly qualified” people worked in non-qualified jobs back in the mid-90s.
Whatever the numbers are today and in different countries in the era of the precariat, these people would most probably have laughed at the romantic idea of work. It is simply no secret that the basic reason why many people work is that they don’t have the freedom not to. The question is how many, and this question may also become a question about social inequality.
But isn’t all that arbitrary?
At this point we already enter the field of arbitrary definitions and diverse sociological views about the complexity of the social world. The result is that we end up in a mess, also concerning the evaluation of what people call “work.”
To repeat it, to define work as “paid employment” excludes most of human history. This is correct so far as nobody used such a category for most of history. In our era, this is the dominant form of activities. But this is not ideologically neutral. Feminists argue that such a definition of “work” excludes the activities of many women and what is then globally called “care work.”
Why is a mother who cares for her child at home not working whereas she is when she commutes next door into the sphere of “the economy” and cares for the child of a richer neighbour?
Simple answer: because she is not paid. We are to a large extent still Smithians, we – or the men which make statistics and decide in politics – only call “work” what is in the end included in GDP. The trouble is that given the value-order of contemporary society this is only consequential, but tends to devalue such activities in comparison with others and be unjust.
The political or ideological question, then, is whether the word “work” in any of its meanings or vague connotations provides anything that makes it necessary to apply it here and in similar contexts. The strategy is clear: If you want to express that something is valuable to society within a work society, you have to call it “work,” whatever it is, because this is the most noble term of all.
If we ask if caring for someone at home without pay, housework, and so-called “volunteer work ” are really work or not, or whether works of art are the products of work, the correct answer here is always the same. There is nothing out there that is work. It simply depends on how we define the word “work.”
John W. Budd proposed an inclusive definition:
- Layer 5: Work is any “purposeful human activity involving physical or mental exertion that is not undertaken solely for pleasure and that has economic or symbolic value.”
Since every human activity whatsoever involves physical or mental exertion to some degree, we can forget about this here. Without physical and mental exertion, you won’t even raise from your chair.
However, the idea is that caring at home for one’s own children or the elderly is as much work as caring for others because in both cases the activity is not undertaken solely for pleasure. Going for a walk alone is not work because it is.
With this broad view of work, we get something that shall include paid and unpaid activities. Furthermore, such work is again transhistorical and transcultural. As a view that tells us something interesting, it is easily debunked.
Consider the following: what if the person goes for a walk reluctantly to do his partner a favour or merely because he had promised it? We have to call it work, too, if this is included under “symbolic value.” What if the person walks to improve his health? Probably its not work because the value of the action is neither economic nor symbolic. But is this arbitary? If the person jogs to improve his looks, it might be work. All competitive sports turns out to be work, even if not paid for, because they not only pursued for pleasure, they are done in order to win. What if a cook cooks the meal at home on one day purely for pleasure, on the other because the damn kids are hungry, is it work on one day, something else on the other?
As we see, we can rather arbitrarily define “work” to fit our cases and exlude others. The game is almost endless.
Does it matter & make a difference?
We should now have seen that “work” is hard to define, either non-existent or irrelevant as a transhistoric phenomenon, an intellectual and social invention of modern capitalism, and highly controversial in any respect. On this backdrop it is surprising that it does not find much interest these days.
It is highly controversial in being associated with contradicatory theses. Work is seen as either transhistorical or historical, a curse or a gift, liberating or enslaving, useful or useless, necessary or unnecessary, socialising or alienating, a good to be shared or something to be fled, utterly broad a category or highly specific, and what have you.
This together with the complexity of the social world and the manifold types of jobs done make it hard say anything as a quick concluding evaluation.
When you look with a philosophical eye onto history, the aim may be to look for human possibilities. Those can be spotted when differences occur, either in thought or in corresponding social practices. They become relevant in the present when they are transposed into interpretation of the current state of society, political ideas and proposals, or visions of the future.
Of course, conservatives tell transhistorical or anthropological stories, they don’t look for human possibilities but fear them.
Most probably before the 18th century almost nobody would have imagined the abolishion of work (or something near enough) outside of utopian tracts. What we call “the economy” simply didn’t allow it. It allowed only a small surplus eaten up by the aristocratic class.
After the invention of work the 19th century envisioned either the abolishment of work, the liberation of work, or the pragmatic improvement of labour conditions within the given order. The liberation of work either was never tried or become a mere joke in real-existing socialism/communism. The political agenda of social democracy and the left in the 20th century was to improve “work” via its regulation, by politically aiming to realize full employment and increasing wages. It worked for astonishing 20 years before neoliberalism took over, rebuilt 19th century working conditions abroad, and in many respects reversed the history of labour everywhere.
What is hardly reflected is that work – capitalist wage work – is also the main driver of the destruction of the planet and the biosphere. Work is only the underside of consumption in general and of consumerism specifically, and without the latter there is also no innocent earning a living in capitalism. Perhaps this should be the focus of the 21st century.
The vagueness of the term “work” makes it also hard to deal with truisms such as, to take a random example, “Stable and meaningful work plays a central role in any good life” (translated from German). For sure, if this means to interact with others to do something everybody agrees is valuable, then nobody will disagree. But does this mean wage work, which arguably is the only work there is?
Of course, people enjoy being together with others, even at work, and their psychic health depends on it, but does this tell us that work is preferable in comparison with all other types of social relations? It is just another myth of economics that people abhorr “work” (i.e. purposive and cooperative action) and therefore, have to be “incentivised” into doing something, but what is the moral of this in relation to what? Does it necessarily mean that people should freely surrender to employers under the conditions of neoliberal late capitalism, which include competing with others who share the same social fate, and to thank them for the opportunity and for creating the good called “jobs,” perhaps also to subsidize wages via the state? Or should the state in democratic capitalism guarantee jobs for everyone similar to autocratic communism, probably full-time, whatever it is that is done there? Or could the human tendency to cooperate be liberated outside so-called work?
To ask such questions shows that our queries can make a political difference. For instance, answers to our questions determine whether a conservative, a pragmatic or a revolutionary stance are taken.
Today we cannot even any longer say that work is important because it guarantees a (family) living wage, simply because it doesn’t for so many people across the world. Inequality statistics also tell us that its for the most part a “liberal” myth that work is the source of upwards mobility. And if exploitation is excluded for a second, it is also doubtful whether it still holds that work is the source of wealth, but machines are.
To generally point to the necessity to work for a living in order to argue that everybody needs work confuses pre-modern relation of humans with nature with social relations within capitalism. Why? Because people in most jobs don’t produce anything by their “work” that they consume. Of course, within democratic or autocratic capitalism everybody needs work as long as he is not rich or related to someone who has either one or the other.
André Gorz put it beautifully the following way:
“The absolute need to have a sufficient and safe income is one thing, the need to be busy with something, to take effect, to act, to compete with others and to earn their appreciation, is another, which is neither absorbed by the former nor identical with it. Capitalism to the contrary connects both of these needs systematically, confounds and conflates them, and grounds therein the power of capital and its ideological supremacy. … The vital need for sufficient income serves as a vehicle in order to smuggle in an ‘unalterable need for work’.”
If our ancestors would visit us: what would they do?
If ancient, medieval, early modern, or even 19th century humans would visit us today, their first reaction would be astonishment over the technological potency aggregate humanity has acquired over only one century. Then they would laugh at us, get scared, and flee as soon as possible because they would fear we would make them work, enslave them by sharing our freedom with them.
They would quickly notice the absurdity that we sacrifice most of our time to the social necessity of earning a living although our technologies already freed us from any natural necessity.
Beside the myth that people have always worked, another central myth is that capitalism has freed humankind from the toil of work and is to be praised for this success.
In this story it is at first correctly claimed that working hourse have decreased since the second half of the 19th century. However, we can only say that they decreased to some extant because liberal capitalism first forced on people the most horrific working hours and working conditions that are biologically possible in that era, just to decrease the hours and improve working conditions a bit in the following century of fierce struggles, only to increase them then again, dependent on the specifics of the country.
When (in Germany) in 1918 the 8-hour-workday was introduced, this was only to regain conditions under which human ancestors had worked centuries ago. Probably it is true that we today still work more than everybody else in the totality of human history. Not even slaves, villeins and menials worked as much. This beautifully illustrates what it means to live in a work society. David Graeber wrote:
“Feudal lords, insofar as they worked at all, were fighters — their lives tended to alternate between dramatic feats of arms and near-total idleness and torpor. Peasants and servants obviously were expected to work more steadily. But even so, their work schedule was nothing remotely as regular or disciplined as the current nine-to-five—the typical medieval serf, male or female, probably worked from dawn to dusk for twenty to thirty days out of any year, but just a few hours a day otherwise, and on feast days, not at all. And feast days were not infrequent.”
According to Juliet Schor, in medieval England one-third of the year were holidays, although its population is said to have been famous for working harder than its contemporary neighbors. In addition to Sundays, the French cultivated ninety rest days plus thirty-eight holidays. “In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year.”
“A thirteenth-century estimate finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land. Manorial records from fourteenth-century England indicate an extremely short working year – 175 days – for servile laborers. Later evidence for farmer-miners, a group with control over their worktime, indicates they worked only 180 days a year.”
Something similar holds for ancient Greece and Rome:
“Leisure in Ancient Greece and Rome was also plentiful. Athenians had fifty to sixty holidays annually, while in Tarentum they apparently had half the year. In the old Roman calendar, 109 of 355 days were designated nefasti, or ‘unlawful for judicial and political business.’ By the mid-fourth century, the number of feriae publicae (public festival days) reached 175.”
If we had asked us above what on earth it could mean that work became something abstract, quantifiable, and a source for accumulated wealth, here we have it on black and white what the difference is between cultures (or economies) where different activities have not only different names, but are done to satisfy specific needs. In contrast, capitalist production of aggregate “value” and monetary “wealth” is endless. The trouble is that within the given relations of power the result is always and necessarily long hours. Everytime the capitalist beast is unleashed, working hours rise.
According to Juliet Schor, the decline of worktime in the US stopped abruptly after World War II, which “marked the beginning of a new era in worktime,” namely its increase across all occupations. Her not uncontested figures state that the average US-employee worked 163 hours per year more in 1987 than in 1969, although productivity increased here as elsewhere. In total these are 1949 hours per year, which is in the range of the numbes around the year 1600.
Here we find a difference between the USA and Europe, where due to stronger labour unions the picture is somewhat different. However, given that women entered the so-called workforce and men did not work much less, aggregate hours worked in the countries increased.
Given this historical fact it is even likely that we actually cannot compare these figures with the pre-modern data, because those are only for male members of the household, not for whole households. If that is the measure, the differences could even be more drastic. Whether this is good or bad is, of course, a different matter.
Also the increase of the GDP-bubble of the German economy in the 21st century, one of the role models for other parts of the world, was accompanied by an increase in the aggregat number of hours worked.
To repeat, it does matter. It makes a difference what intellectuals, those in power and ordinary people think overall about work, because it makes a difference to the way a society is organised, transformed or reproduced.
Rutger Bregman called the reduction of working hours a lost dream and suggested to bring it back on the agenda, also to make room for something else, beyond work. Actually, the ancients had not totally implausible ideas, such as not to overestimate the value of consumption but to enjoy it anyway, to have much free time to educate or train oneself in whatever one wishes or to do nothing, and to engage directly in the affairs of the community.
Meanwhile, the Covid-lockdowns have shown that a drastic reduction of work does not make a huge difference and that a different type of freedom is possible. Whether many want it is another question.
In England a campagn promotes a four-day-workweek, and again polls suggests that people want it. For a short time there was a similar voice within the German left, which was instantly smashed by conservatives and liberals as resulting in a disadvantage for the German economy in international competition, that it would cost jobs. David Graeber again correctly stated that every social crises is followed by calls for more sacrifices by the population, and more work for all. It will be interesting to see what will happen.
In her 1992 publication, Juliet Schor mentioned that US-productivity only failed to increase in 5 years after 1948 and doubled in total. In less than half the time the US could at the end of the 80s produce what it had produced back then.
On the background of this thought experiment (you have to hold at least the population and level of consumption constant) and the time that has passed since its publication, where productivity increased further, to campaign for a 4-day-workweek 100 hundred years after the establishment of the 8-hour-workday is next to ridiculous.
I would suggest the next international poll should ask people whether they prefer a 5plus-workdays capitalism with 25 days vacation, say three weeks of imperialist tourism, and constant fear of social decline, over something else with an as yet unknown name, a 1-day-workweek, lots of time for activities and play in newly built communities, and next to endless sabbaticals to go and live whereever one wants.
If the latter would be chosen, this would be the abolishment of work. And nobody would miss it because before there would have been a fruitful debate over what about “work”, and which “work,” is valuable and what not, and which activities in which organizational form could substitute it.
The death of work would be accompanied by a liberation of multiple activities. Time would not be money any longer.
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